It turns out the summer riots were not purely criminal, but political after all. Turns out the rioters’ rage against the forces of law and order trumped their desire for free stuff by far – although many, naturally, had no objection to free stuff either. No, even the free stuff was political – a statement of sorts. Whatever – now someone other than those directly involved is obliged to take some responsibility, so wheel on the usual suspects: inadequate parents, teachers, local community leaders, local youth services and social workers – anyone, heaven forbid, but this country’s lawmakers.
Sometimes it’s not only my four-year-old who makes me feel young again. Sometimes it’s just the news. In 1981 I graduated from university, along with, let me see, Emma Thompson, Stephen Fry, Ed Stourton, Amanda Craig, Nicholas Hytner – they don’t remember me, of course, but these were my immediate contemporaries. Unlike them I spent the next five years drawing the dole, and squatting, not many streets away from my current respectable address. In between scrounging for clothes and firewood in skips, among other things, I contributed to anarchist, feminist and socialist rags, almost always for free. I was a drop-out, and (most the time) I was proud of it. There were three million unemployed. In a perverse way I considered myself fortunate to belong to a lost generation. For sure, the political climate saw to it that we felt like shit, but in practice we weren’t hassled much. Sign on once a month, giro in the post, few questions asked. In exchange for some ritual public humiliation, we were free.
I’m not so sure now. I was happy on the dole in 1984 because I saw no tolerable alternative for someone like me, unprepossessing, poorly groomed, with a not-very-good English degree, and (so I believed) regarded with contempt by my own family and all their associates. Had I seen an alternative, I might have opted for it, but I genuinely saw myself as unemployable. I probably was. Who knows.
There were summer riots again 1984, and I got pretty close to them. A close friend was arrested and fined. Two weeks later, my squat was raided at dawn; I was dragged all but naked from my mattress and stood shivering in a corner while a team of police officers up-ended my attic room. They were looking, I presume, for looted goods. They did not find any, but nor did they make any attempt to restore order, or repair shattered doors and windows. All they found in two rows of squatted terraces were a couple of potted dope plants. Those houses were squatted by a bunch of impoverished, generally deluded and borderline mentally ill white kids, all, without exception, alienated from our generally middle-class backgrounds. In the post-riot period we were an easy target.
One of us was a former Cambridge University medical student, who later committed suicide. Another actually accosted me twenty-five years later, begging on the streets near my home. We carried on greeting each other each time I passed, until the day he saw me out with my partner. I don’t know if there was a connection, but I haven’t seen him since.
Very different types, then, from the mostly angry black rioters interviewed by the LSE this year. Very different from the angry mostly-black local rioters back then. And of course, we timid white kids were not really rioters. But we were criminalised, implicitly; without having even joined in the resistance, simply as undesirable citizens. I sensed then that our main social function was to serve as a scapegoats. Don’t untouchables everywhere exist to make provision for and bear the ill-concealed guilt of the rest? Those at the bottom of the social ladder are called upon pay the highest, really the only price for the crap that the rest of us peddle. It’s their duty and destiny; and yep, it is criminal to attempt to resist it, to do anything but passively accept. Put bluntly, there are winners and losers, and the winners need the losers more than vice versa. Didn’t they learn anything in the playground?